Fibre - more than meets the gut

Let’s be honest fibre isn’t the sexiest of topics - ‘Eat your prunes, it’s got lots of roughage’ – that’s the line my grandmother used to always use; anything that kept her regular she deemed healthy. Today that roughage is called dietary fibre and the latest research shows it does so much more than keep us regular.

Fibre not only contributes to digestive health and keeps our bowel movements regular as grandma suggested, but it’s also good for our gut bugs and can contribute to longevity.

At a fibre symposium earlier this year it was suggested the more fibre we include in our diet, the more health benefits we’ll reap, as individuals and as a nation. However, New Zealand adults are consuming less than the recommended daily intake, so the majority of us could easily up our game and consume more of the ‘rough stuff’.

What is fibre and what does it do?

Fibre is the parts of plant foods that can’t be digested, it comes from vegetables, fruits, grains, seed husks, beans and legumes (lentils and chickpeas). Fibre can be soluble or insoluble. Soluble fibre binds with water to form a gel as it passes through the small intestine and is readily fermented by gut microflora once it reaches the large intestine. Insoluble fibre stays intact to push food through the stomach and the intestines, adding bulk to the stool along the way, helping to keep us regular.

As dietary fibre moves through the digestive system it doesn’t get completely absorbed and used for energy like other nutrients. Rather, the undigested bits fill us up, cleaning and sweeping out waste along the way and provide a food source for the good bacteria living in the intestines.

So if fibre is found in plant foods, what’s this got to do with meat? There is no fibre in animal foods, including red meat. However, we do not eat any food in isolation and having a diet which includes plenty of fibrous plant foods alongside your lean beef and lamb provides a well-balanced meal that is not only packed with high quality protein, iron, vitamin B12 and zinc, but also contains nutrients, antioxidants and fibre from the plant foods – a perfect pairing. Our recipes are all developed with this in mind.

Why is fibre so healthy for us?

A large study led by the University of Otago and presented at the recent fibre symposium confirmed ‘the data is irrefutable’ says Professor Jim Mann, basically the more fibre the more health benefits. Results from the study showed:

  • Fibre-rich diets can reduce incidence of coronary heart disease, stroke, Type 2 diabetes and colorectal cancer by 16-24%.

  • There is a 15-30% decreased risk in cardiovascular disease and all-cause mortality when comparing people who eat the highest amount of fibre with those who eat the least.

  • Higher fibre intake has been associated with lower body weight and prevention of weight gain along with lower systolic blood pressure and total cholesterols.

Emeritus Professor John Cummings (University of Dundee School of Medicine) also shared at the fibre symposium that fibre feeds our good gut bacteria such as lactobacillus and bifidobacteria.  These help ferment dietary fibre in the large intestine to produce short chain fatty acids, giving us energy and protecting the gut lining.  

So how much fibre should we be eating?

Although now ten years old, our last National Nutrition Survey suggested adult New Zealanders consume on average 20g a day. This is somewhat less than the Ministry of Health recommendations of 25g/day for females and 30g/day males, which is backed by the study that concludes a range of 25-29g fibre a day for adults is associated with health benefits. However the study suggests a target of 30g/day is the ideal.

How do we consume more fibre?

The simplest way to do this is by eating a varied diet including fruit and vegetables, wholegrains, seeds, nuts and legumes (beans, lentils) alongside your animal protein of choice.

However, for those that follow low carbohydrate diets it’s pretty difficult to get all your fibre from fruit and vegetables alone say Professor Jim Mann, ‘the amount you’d have to eat would be enormous’. He recommends including carbohydrates such as wholegrain bread and cereal to reach that 25-30g amount.

Quick ways to increase fibre include:

  • Get that 5+ a day of fruit & vegetables and if possible keep the skin on.

  • At mealtimes sprinkle on some nuts or seeds such as linseed, chia, pumpkin, sunflower, poppy and sesame.

  • Choose wholegrain breads and crackers – the more grains the better.

  • Choose a breakfast cereal with plenty of fibre such as rolled oats, wheat biscuits and bran – look at the packaging nutrition panel 100g column and aim for at least 5 grams fibre.

  • Bulk up a mince dish by adding in some beans, lentils or rolled oats, not only will it enhance the fibre content, it will extend the meal it to feed a few extra mouths.  Remember some extra liquid will be required if using dried varieties of beans or lentils.

  • Brown rice, wholemeal pasta, quinoa, beans, chickpeas, lentils, split peas, corn and popcorn are all high in fibre – look at ways of using them by tweaking your favourite dishes. 

For more meal ideas check out our fibre filled Beef Bowl and Lamb Rump Steaks with Red Lentil Salad, both these recipes provide around a third of an adult’s daily fibre requirements.